Disney’s tween mega-hit High School Musical is now an “Ice Tour,” “Disney on Ice” tours seven live ice shows around the world, and even Brunei’s “Royal Highness Princess Hjh Amal Rakiah and other-members of [Brunei’s] Royal family” have seen Disney On Ice’s production of Finding Nemo.
With the success of the “Disney On Ice” franchise, Disney has turned figure skating into a true cash cow and, in their stride to sell everything “Princess,” Disney offers two “royal skating extravaganzas,” one entitled “Princess Classics” and the other entitled “Princess Wishes.”
But the gender norms and racial stereotypes represented in Disney’s popular Princess Ice Shows are extremely troubling case studies in “Princess Propaganda.” In terms of their movement towards more highly traditional gender roles as well as the exoticization of non-white cultures, Disney has profited immensely from its relationship with the figure skating world.
If you ever had any doubt about the Princesses’ ultimate goal in life, the finale of “Princess Wishes” clears it right up. Set to the music of Cinderella’s “So this is Love,” this scene portrays the Princesses waltzing (on ice, that is) with their beloved Princes, all the while dressed in their wedding gowns. Even after scenes in the movie (and their depictions in the ice show) in which many of these Princesses defy patriarchal traditions — Belle’s struggles to read, Ariel’s breaking away from her father’s control, and Mulan’s enlistment in the Chinese army, for instance – these very same Princesses represent the patriarchal norm for women to move directly from their father’s home to their husband’s home. “One of the most spectacular moments is when the princes swing down in a daring move to rescue their damsels in distress,” says a news anchor from the Austin, TX CBS affiliate, reporting on the “Princess Classics” show touring their city.
That is, the Princesses rebel against their fathers only to join their husbands in this wedding waltz. They remain, in their white dresses, safely under patriarchal control.
In addition to this “Wedding Dress” scene, the finale for “Princess Classics” has all of the Princesses and their Princes dancing to Disney’s original song “If You Can Dream.” But what stands out the most in this scene (in addition to the fact that, in the end, some intense fireworks start streaming out from the bottom of Cinderella’s carriage, that is) is not just that Mulan is the only non-white Princess represented — since Pocahontas is not featured in either of the Princess “Disney on Ice” productions. Mulan is also wearing the traditional Chinese clothing, makeup, and hairstyle that she only wears during the scenes when she is in her father’s house or when she is preparing to meet the matchmaker. This outfit shows that she is available for marriage, and represents the oppression she actively rebels against in the movie by cutting her hair, wearing men’s clothing, and becoming a soldier. The clothing of the other Princesses is not as politically charged with gender issues, and this sets Mulan apart as the even more exotic ‘other.’
What also bothers me is that, during the Wedding Dress scene, Mulan is shown wearing a wedding dress along with the other Princesses. At the end of Mulan, not only does Mulan not get married, she’s not even in a relationship with her love interest Shang, who is notably not a prince. Mulan goes home as a great war-hero for China unaccompanied by a man, and Shang is left to follow her if he wants to be with her, placing him in the stereotype of the traditional feminine and her in the traditional masculine.
In both “Princess Wishes” and “Princess Classics,” then, the Princesses are not only held up as symbolic archetypes for the patriarchy, but Mulan’s story in particular is made more ‘exotic’ in her clothing choice as well as manipulated to a greater extent in order to make her fit with more traditional gender norms.
Because these Princesses’ stories as well as their depictions by “Disney on Ice” emphasize finding true love, getting married, and living ‘happily ever after,’ we have to question the ramifications of their influence on the young girls who consume Disney’s Princess products.
In a study conducted in 2005 by Susan Darker-Smith for the University of Derby, England called “The Tales We Tell Our Children – or over conditioning of girls to expect partners to change,” researchers found that “female victims of domestic violence often identified with passive, female role models they had encountered in fairy tales as children and believed that if their love was strong enough they could change their partner’s behavior… Interviewees made statements like: “I know I could change him back into the prince I fell in love with if only I could love him enough.”
The combination of these transformational themes as represented in Disney movies, such as Beauty and the Beast, as well as the way “Disney on Ice” manipulates the stories of their only strong, independent Princesses leaves young girls with fewer options for their future relationships.